Yes, you read it right....I went on a Summer hike in the middle of February! For those of you not familiar with North Carolina, allow me to clarify. If you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes. It has been an odd Winter to be sure. It has been a lot milder than normal, yet we had a pretty deep snow in the middle several days below freezing. This weekend has been getting progressively warmer, which has brought on the affliction of "Spring Fever." Wanting to get outside and go for a hike, I was looking forward to the warm temperatures, and was getting rather excited about the clouds that were forecasted for the general area.
There have been a couple of things that I have wanted to do here lately. One of which has been working with my 10-Stop ND filter for some daytime long exposure photography. I have tinkered with this a couple of times now, but nothing like what I want to do with it. The other thing is a technique that I have never even tried before. This would be stitching together two or more images to make a panorama. I have always loved the idea, but the computer end of it was a little too technical for my brain. Now that I'm working with Lightroom, the stitching process is quite easy, and I wanted to give it a try. However, I had not come across the right scene for a panorama, mainly since I don't usually "see" in that format.
The best place for me to work on both of those techniques was Stone Mountain. I can find some of the most interesting vistas there with the many balds that are scattered around the park. There are several different trails that go to the high points of the park, and that gave me lots of options to take advantage of the clouds I was expecting.
My morning started out rather early, but I stayed in bed for an extra 30 minutes past my 5am alarm. I'm not complaining at all! I had checked the weather, and the cloud forecast was much thicker than I had expected with a forecasted 100% coverage. This meant that there would be no real chance for a sunrise, and I didn't need to stress getting to the park right when the gates opened this time.
When I left the house at 6:15, I looked up and saw stars and the moon. Well, that is a little funny looking for a totally cloudy sky. I was already in motion, and I figured I would go to Stone Mountain as was my original plan. Hey, I might get some patches of blue in my sky...that is, if the clouds actually did arrive. The entire trip to the park was filled with clear skies. I could see some distant clouds over the Blue Ridge Mountains, but they were much too far away for me to benefit from them. I was starting to work on alternate plans for my Trek since it was not looking like I was going to get what I wanted on the upper trails.
At least there wasn't anyone else in the park when I arrived. That is always a nice thing to have the area to myself. This also marks the first "real" Trek that I have done in my new 4Runner. Other than a quick after work trip to Pilot Mountain, this is the first dedicated trip I've made in this truck. It worked out great for transporting my equipment, and I have no doubt that when it comes time to leave the paved roads it will do even better for me. I've still got a few things to do to it, but it is mostly ready to be put into service as the photo expedition vehicle.
But I digress...Let's revisit the current situation. The sky was mostly clear, but there were some clouds starting to move in. That was promising and motivated me to continue on with my original plan of hiking the upper trails around Wolf Rock, Cedar Rock, and Blackjack Ridge. The air was slightly crisp, and was about 51 degrees when I started out. I was comfortable in my long pants, and I hoped that they wouldn't be too much later in the day. I got to Wolf Rock in about 20 minutes or so and set out looking for some compositions.
Nothing was hitting me today at this location. Normally, I can find all sorts of things to photograph, but I just wasn't feeling it because of the lighting and the locations of the clouds. I chose to give this spot up, and return later in the afternoon with the sun in a different position. It was back to the trail I went, and Cedar Rock was my next stopping point. I was just hoping that I had better luck there!
|Bleak Existence in B&W|
I shot some other compositions here, but none of them really turned out all that great. While I was thinking that I had a few good shots, I was pretty much just trying to salvage the day. Granted, the hike was wonderful and something that I was desperately needing. Of course, I was really wanting to make it worth my while bringing this 30LB bag with me. I knew I wasn't capturing the images that I had set out to get, but I figured the more I tried, the more chances I would have to get a few really good images. It just wasn't going to be here at this section of Cedar Rock.
I hiked back to the main trail, and continued on to Blackjack Ridge. I don't think that I have ever been on this trail before, and I was excited to see what was to be seen. Well, I now know why I haven't been on this trail before. There was actually very little to see in terms of photography. There were no overlooks, or breaks in the trees where I could shoot the face of Stone Mountain. The trail was really nice though, and was mostly downhill. At least until I hit the valley. Then it was a steady climb back up again. I kept my eyes out for photo ops along the way as it wasn't looking like I was going to get anything out in the open to shoot.
|Find Your Grip|
|Getting a Leg Up|
I continued until I got to the next intersection that brought me to the other end of the Cedar Rock trail. Having had some good luck with Cedar about an hour ago, and wanting to go back to Wolf Rock, I decided to head back up the trail that I had started a while ago. My other option would have kept me in the low lands of the park, and the sun was causing too many issues for that to be a good idea for much longer.
|The Granite Slopes|
I kept my rig built as it was, and started looking for other possible compositions. I moved up towards where the actual trail was and was pleased to find a nice island of vegetation, including a reddish plant. As I moved closer, I could see that Stone Mountain was positioned in a way that I could use it as a background for this little island. My 16-35mm lens was just perfect to make this image work, so I left it attached. The wind was a little gusty here, and with the foreground consisting of small bushes, I didn't want to risk blurring the foreground with a long exposure. I stripped off the 10-Stop filter and chose to set the shot up with no filters. Since there was blue in the sky, I was worried that a polarizer would cause banding at such a wide focal length.
I wondered what was on the other side of the trees, and hoped that it was another chance to get a nice view of Stone Mountain. I left everything built on the camera and just walked down the little trail. Once I cleared the trees, I was very happy with what I saw. There was Stone Mountain, just as clear as the day is long. I've been here before, and had a very hard time getting a composition since there isn't much in the way of a foreground. I started to hunt something...anything to put in front of the camera to avoid the post card shot. I wanted to show depth, and that was going to be kind of difficult. The answer came in the form of some weird luck. Just under the shade of the trees, I found a patch of moss that was growing on the stone surface. Along with the shadows, I figured that I had the foreground that I was after. I just needed to work on a composition. I knew that I wanted to use my 16-35mm lens which was still on the camera. I started out shooting with no filters, and found the image a little blah.
|Nothing but Time|
|Nothing but Time in B&W|
I was really starting to enjoy Cedar Rock. I was finding all sorts of little treasures up here. I kept searching for other compositions, but was finding myself running out of dramatic options. I had ended up back at the section where I had been earlier in the day. There was still some very nice lighting, and the clouds were much better now. I started to set up to reshoot some of the compositions I had done earlier and then thought I didn't want to do that. I was looking at a large area with lots of little points of interest, but nothing that really jumped out independent from the others. Could this be? Was this going to be my chance to do a panorama? I had a very wide area that I had never captured before, and the lighting was relatively uniform. Yeah, I might as well give it a try.
I swapped out my wide angle lens for my 70-200mm. Yeah, I know this seems a little counterproductive to take an ultra wide view with a long lens. There is actually a method to my madness though. If I had shot with my wide angle, I would have had a lot of perspective distortion to deal with. It isn't an issue with a single shot, but when I am stitching several together, it causes problems...or so I've read. Using my lens at 70mm, I wasn't going to have that issue to deal with. The issue that I had was getting enough height to the image. To deal with that, I flipped the camera on its side, and shot portrait orientation.
With the pano done, I had had gotten all of the goody out of Cedar Rock. There was nothing left that excited me with the current conditions. I packed up the camera and walked down the steep slope, back to the trail. When I got to the bottom, I happened to look over at the old wooden stage that has been falling in for some time now. There was a lot of interesting trees in the area to the side of it. With the clouds coming in pretty thick now, I thought that I had the chance to do some woodland shots before going back to Wolf Rock. As I was working my way off of the trail, I saw an old chimney that I had forgotten was there. The way that the light was, I knew I had to shoot this. I pulled the camera back out again, and left the 70-200mm lens on. I added an intensifying polarizer before getting low to the ground. I chose a position that would allow me to frame the fireplace between two trees with the branches providing the upper frame for the image.
|Wrinkled and Spiked|
|Old and New|
It didn't take me long to get there, and when I did, I was really surprised to see so many hikers out there. I had only passed a handful of other hikers on the trails up to this point. Now I was looking at easily 25-40 people just on the first section of Wolf Rock. They were loud, and spread all over. I looked for some workable compositions, but honestly, all the noise was killing my creative mood. It was time to hit the road to home. That was probably for the best since it was now over 80 degrees, and I was starting to get very hot in my long pants. That should not have been a concern in mid February!
I had been in the park for about five hours. In that time, I had shot 119 frames, used all three of my lenses, and used four of my filters. I had done my long exposure shots as well as my first panorama. Despite the lackluster start to the day, Stone Mountain didn't let me down today. This is quickly becoming my favorite place to shoot, as every time I come here, I leave with a camera full of images to process.